How Controversial Is Britain’s Counterterrorism Strategy?
Throughout its development, Prevent has faced severe criticism but has remained protected by the armor of national security.
On January 22, Britain’s security minister, Ben Wallace, announced there was to be an independent review of the government’s Prevent strategy. The review was launched to further demonstrate the work done by the program in stopping people from becoming engaged in terrorism. Prevent is one of the four strands of the UK’s counterterrorism strategy, CONTEST. Created in 2003, CONTEST sought to revolutionize the way terrorism was addressed — through preventing, pursuing, protecting and preparing the country and its citizens against attack.
It was first published as a policy paper in 2006 before being put under the control of the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism, which was established in 2007, and updated to Pursue, Prevent, Protect and Prepare as part of the United Kingdom’s Strategy for Countering International Terrorism. The third version of CONTEST emerged in 2011 and explicitly placed Prevent at the forefront of its focus, resulting in the 2011 Prevent Strategy that sought to disrupt the processes of radicalization to stop people from becoming engaged in terrorism.
The 2015 Counter-Terrorism and Security Act (CTSA) cemented this governmental focus on Prevent through the creation of the so-called Prevent duty — a statutory obligation, particularly on public sector workers, to stop people from engaging in terrorism or extremism through the referral mechanism of the Channel program and the upholding and promotion of British values. Throughout its development, Prevent has faced severe criticism but has remained protected by the armor of national security. Thus, academics and commentators have been left to gather data and personal insights in order to understand its impacts and effects, with no publically available and independent oversight conducted — until now.
Post 9/11, Islamic extremism replaced years of IRA-related violence as the biggest terrorist threat the UK faced, and thus international terrorism — largely in connection with al-Qaeda — became the focus of counterterrorism programs. This attitude became further entrenched after the 7/7 London bombings, which were carried out by terrorists inspired by groups affiliated with al-Qaeda. However, whereas previous international terrorism had been carried out by foreign individuals, 7/7 was a stark wake-up call for counterterrorism forces demonstrating the transient nature of ideology and the capacity for British-born, “homegrown” individuals to become engaged in terrorism — to become radicalized.
Thus, disabling this “enemy within” became a key focus of British counterterrorism strategy. The Prevent program sought to identify those most likely to succumb to terrorist ideology, pre-empt their actions and obstruct them from engaging in acts of terrorism. In doing so, however, the government problematically made the focus on Islamist-inspired terrorism synonymous with a focus on Muslims, disproportionately targeting them as a group most likely to become engaged in terrorism activity. Numerous studies explore the ways in which Prevent’s conception of threat can be read as resting on Orientalist, imperialist, racist and gendered narratives that ultimately designate Muslims as the Other.
These studies include funding allocations for areas with Muslim populations over 5% (particularly around integration into community-cohesion programs), stop-and-search statistics, the utilization of mosques as inroads for community reporting, the securitization of the hijab and the presentations of Muslims as a single monolithic community. This has been categorically denied by government officials who claim there is no deliberate attempt to target any one group, but academics have in many cases found evidence where indeed this has been the result of Prevent-affiliated programs, leading to subsequent calls for the scrapping of the strategy.
Moving forward to the 2015 and the CTSA, the Prevent duty shifted its focus to all forms of extremism and terrorism, broadening the scope for the strategy and moving away from its explicit focus on international terrorism. This remained the biggest threat, at least in writing. While studies are continuing to come to light around the effects and experiences of the Prevent duty, the picture remains complex and raises concerns for the (un)intended consequences of such a far-reaching and entrenched program of countering terrorism.
Reports and research undertaken by academics, media outlets and human rights organizations have shone a worrying light on a policy that puts teachers, doctors, social workers and housing agents, amongst many others, at the foot of a legal obligation to report signs of vulnerability to radicalization, or those who reject and challenge British values of democracy, rule of law, mutual tolerance and respect, and individual liberty. There have been claims of 4-year-olds being reported to anti-terror hotlines for misspelling “terrace house” (instead writing “terrorist house”), doctors caught between their role as a health professional and a legal obligation to spot signs of radicalization, of safe spaces undermined and Muslim activist organizations at universities having their freedom of speech impinged upon.
For many researchers, their data and analysis are evidence of a highly problematic strategy that further entrenches division and suspicion, and must be scrapped. These chilling effects that are claimed to have occurred as a result of the duty are, however, debated. For some, Prevent, particularly in relation to the duty clause, is not quite as destructive as has been made out, and for others it is a highly successful strategy that saves lives. Prevent officers have shared their positive experiences of the duty, noting its value and significance in both fighting against the spread of terrorist ideology and safeguarding people from engaging in dangerous and potentially life-threatening spaces.
These critiques have been labeled “myths” and “distortions” by some who claim Prevent does not limit, but broadens the scope for critical thinking. Further, the annual release of Prevent referral statistics has been welcomed as a response to some critics. They have signaled the government’s desire to be as transparent as possible around the implementation of the duty, it is suggested. Challenges have also been made to the claims that Prevent disproportionately targets Muslims, with government saying this criticism is outdated and in relation to previous versions of the strategy.
Some practitioners are also actively engaging with far-right narratives in seeking to avoid discrimination and respond to the rise in visibility of radical right-wing organizations and ideologies. However, the capacity of the most recent Channel referral statistics in demonstrating this broadening of focus has been challenged.
These debates outline one key element: Prevent is by no means perfect. The vast scope of views on the program, from the critiques to the success stories, demonstrate the contestable and complex nature of the scheme. Thus, given its statutory standing and normalization through the everyday enactment of Prevent duty across the public sector, it is high time an independent review is announced. Welcomed by many across the opinion divides, the review now has to engage with a spectrum of voices and the vast amount of quantitative and qualitative data that reveal a multitude of experiences — and do so in a truly independent manner.
*[The Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right is a partner institution of Fair Observer.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.